As we head into the holiday season, many people struggle with their mental well-being, and if you're a recovering addict or in the midst of addiction, drugs and alcohol can make the holidays even more challenging.
A former high school star quarterback, who went on to play in college and was good enough for the NFL, explains how he lost it all because of his addiction, and he explains how he finally found a new path to recovery and the gratefulness he holds onto today.
"If you look at like my upbringing, I wasn't supposed to make it. A very broken home, both parents alcoholics. Dad's out of the picture," explained Alton Voss, who was a star at Gulf High School in New Port Richey.
And despite growing up in a dysfunctional home, playing football kept him focused.
He was a dual-threat, as a quarterback and defensive back. And he was ranked third-best quarterback in Florida and 26th best quarterback in the country.
His great skill got him a free ride to play at the University of South Florida, but things did not go as planned.
"When I went to USF, I think that's where I started to crumble. I was at the highest point of my life, making my lowest decisions. And those drugs became my coping mechanism. And at the same time, I started to suffer in silence," Voss explained.
Voss was red-shirted that first year and didn't play at all. That painful transition was so challenging, he turned to alcohol and drugs to help him cope.
"That weekend affair of using these drugs started spilling into the weekdays. And by the time my freshman year came to an end, I just had this realization, I just don't want to play football anymore or go to school," Voss said.
So Voss gave up his full ride and dropped out of school.
"I've been in a situation where I became careless. I took too much of a drug. And I almost overdosed and died," he said.
His addiction progressed, becoming physically dependent on pills, even getting dope sick when he tried to quit cold turkey.
"And so at that point, I was introduced to a pain management doctor and I went through that routine for the next four years. I'd see my doctor every month," Voss explained.
And that's when he got hooked on prescription pain pills, spiraling out of control, eventually slipping into a drug psychosis.
"I used so many drugs over the course of four years, I went into a manic state that lasted for about three weeks. And in that manic state, I stole a car. And then when I went to jail, they sent me to a mental hospital. They misdiagnosed me with schizophrenic and bipolar," Voss said.
"This was a God thing from the very beginning because he wasn't supposed to be my case, ends up being my case," explained Public Defender Jane Patterson, who represented Voss.
Patterson fought to have his theft charge lowered from a felony to a misdemeanor and she got him released from jail, but she still felt she needed to do more.
"I just said, 'Geez Alton, I don't know what it is,' I said, 'But if you ever need someone to talk to you, you can call me.' And I followed that up with a letter with my email and my phone number and whatnot. And he took me up on it," Patterson said.
They often chatted daily, with Patterson trying to steer him in the right direction.
"We just started talking. I introduced him to Christianity, talked about the bible, talked about this being a God thing. And he was hungry for it," Patterson explained.
And as the two became closer, Patterson realized Voss desperately needed professional help, before it was too late.
"I said to my husband, 'I'm not sleeping well at night.' I said, 'I'm getting tapped on the shoulder saying 'You have to do something or this kid is going to die or end up in prison,'" Patterson said
"She knew all of my story, knew the sports, knew I was just really struggling and just needed help. And so she gave me an opportunity to go into treatment back in 2011. June 18, 2011, is when I entered treatment for the first time in my life. I was 22 years old," Voss said.
And that's when his life began to turn around.
The detoxing and intense therapy allowed him to see things clearly and work through all the pain he'd been covering up with drugs and alcohol.
"He was sick and tired of being sick and tired. He didn't want to be an addict. He didn't like that lifestyle. He didn't want it. But he didn't know how to get unstuck. He didn't know how to get out. And we gave him an option to get out," Patterson explained.
After two years of treatment, Voss finally learned how to take care of himself in a new, healthy way.
And with Patterson's strong faith as a Christian, she adopted him as her bonus son and welcomed him into her family.
"I've kind of lived by the motto, 'to whom much is given, much is expected,'" she said.
"And so as I was taking care of me, God was taking care of me. It gave me an opportunity to go back to school and play football," Voss explained.
That second chance took him to Michigan's Grand Valley State University and he played all four years, while focused on his recovery and his education.
Even NFL scouts began looking at him. But at the end of tryouts, the phone never rang.
His agent gave him the painful truth about why his NFL dream would never become a reality.
"First was my age. I was 28 years old at the time. So in terms of football life, I was old. And the second thing was my story. I was a former drug addict," Voss said.
And despite being clean and sober for six years, it was his decisions as a teenager and young adult that destroyed his professional football career.
So he now speaks to young kids about how their choices right now can have permanent consequences.
"I am so grateful for the opportunity that I had to be able to turn my pain into purpose. I really feel like I've found my calling in life. And really just to share my story and connect with people and just let them know it's possible to change, to give them hope," Voss said.
"That hole in his soul that he tried to fill with drugs and alcohol is gone. It's filled up with Jesus Christ now, and purpose and all of those things," Patterson explained.
Voss is now a health advocate for Banyan Treatment Center for drug and alcohol addictions, where he helps individuals and families through the recovery process.
"It's those calls that I get from the family or that individual, who went through treatment. And they thank me for my little part in their journey. And so that really gives me fulfillment. And that was something I wasn't really experiencing before this whole football thing. And so I'm just grateful," Voss said.
So if you're struggling with alcohol or drugs right now, hear this advice.
"You need to reach out and ask for help. Because if you don't, people might not know you need it. And most people want to help," Patterson said.
"Never give up. Just never quit on yourself. Your life is worth it. You will make it through. Just don't quit," Voss said emphatically.
And for those families or friends who are worried about a loved one, Voss explained, "if you see some red flags and you're concerned, make sure you reach out to the right people so it can be positioned the right way. So we can get that person the help that they truly deserve."
If you or someone you know needs help right now, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Helpline at 1-800-662-help (4357) — it's free and confidential and open 24/7, 365-days a year.
And if you'd like to get in touch with Alton Voss directly at Banyan Treatment Center, visit https://www.banyantreatmentcenter.com/.